I’m watching him Israel-Hamas war and I think of one of the world leaders I most admired: Manmohan Singh. He was its prime minister of India in late November 2008, when 10 Pakistani jihadist fighters from the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, widely believed to be linked to Pakistan’s military intelligence, infiltrated India and killed more than 160 people in Mumbai, including 61 in two luxury hotels.
What was Singh’s military response to India’s ‘9/11’? Did nothing.
Manmohan Singh never retaliated militarily to Pakistan or the Lashkar camps in Pakistan. It was a remarkable act of self-restraint. What was the logic? In his book ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy’, India’s foreign minister at the time, Shivshankar Menon, explained, making the following key points:
“I myself pressed at the time for immediate forceful retaliation against jihadist bases or against Pakistani military intelligence, who were clearly complicit,” Menon wrote. “If we had done that it would have been an emotional gratification and it would have erased the shame of the incompetence shown by the Indian police and security agencies.”
He continued, “but on sober reflection and in hindsight, I now believe that the decision not to retaliate militarily and to focus on diplomacy, covertly and by other means, was the right one for that time and place.”
Chief among the reasons, Menon states, was that any military response would have quickly masked how outrageous and terrible the raid on Indian citizens and tourists was. “The fact of a terrorist attack by Pakistan in India with official involvement on the part of Pakistan” would have been lost. Once India retaliated, the world would immediately have what Menon called a “buzz reaction”. Just another Pakistani-Indian dust-up – nothing unusual here.
Furthermore, Menon wrote, “an Indian attack on Pakistan would have united Pakistan behind the Pakistani military, which was in growing disrepute at home” and “an attack on Pakistan it would also have weakened the civilian government in Pakistan, which had just been forcefully elected and which sought a much better relationship with India than the Pakistan military was willing to consider». He continues: “A war scare, and perhaps even war itself, was exactly what the Pakistan Army wanted to strengthen its domestic position.”
Additionally, he wrote, “a war, even a successful war, would have cost and retarded the progress of the Indian economy just when the world economy in November 2008 was in an unprecedented financial crisis”.
In conclusion, Menon states, “by deciding not to attack Pakistan, India was free to pursue all legal and covert means to achieve its objectives to bring the perpetrators to justice, uniting the international community to hold Pakistan to account for its behavior and enhance the likelihood that such an attack would not happen again.”
I understand that Israel is not India – a country of 1.4 billion inhabitants, covering a huge area. The loss of more than 160 people in Mumbai, some of them tourists, was not felt in every home and hamlet, as was the killing by Hamas of some 1,400 Israelis, the maiming of countless others and the kidnapping of more than 200 people. Pakistan also has nuclear weapons to deter retaliation.
However, it is instructive to consider the contrast between India’s response to the Mumbai terror attack and Israel’s response to the Hamas massacre.
After the initial horror at the sheer brutality of the Hamas attack on Israeli children, the elderly and a concert, what happened? The narrative quickly shifted to the brutality of the Israeli counter-offensive against Gazan civilians, including Hamas. The massive Israeli counteroffensive overshadowed Hamas’ terrorism and instead made the organization a hero to some. It has also forced Israel’s new Arab allies in the Abraham Accords to distance themselves from the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, with some 360,000 reservists called up, Israel’s economy will almost certainly go into recession if the elimination of Hamas from Gaza, as Israel wants, takes months, as has also been predicted. The economy is already estimated to contract by more than 10% on an annual basis for the last three months of the year. This after being ranked by “The Economist” as the fourth best performing economy among OECD countries in 2022.
On a personal level, I am appalled by the reaction of those students and progressives who sided with Hamas against Israel -in some cases, even before Israel began its retaliation- the Jewish people had no right to self-determination or self-defense in any part of their homeland.
This reaction also fails to take into account that Israel, for all its faults, is a multicultural society where almost half of the medical graduates today are Arab or Druze. Or that Hamas is a militant, Islamist organization that does not tolerate dissent or LGBTQ people and is dedicated to wiping out the Jewish state from the face of the earth.
So I have sympathy for the dire choices faced by Israel’s government after the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. But precisely because I closely watched Singh’s unique response to the Mumbai terror attack, I immediately advocated for a much more targeted, fully thought-out response from Israel. He should have called this operation “Save Our Hostages” and focused on capturing and killing the kidnappers of children and grandparents. Any parent could understand this.
On the contrary, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government immediately rushed into a plan, as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant put it, to “wipe out” Hamas “from the face of the earth”. And in three weeks Israel has easily inflicted more than three times as many civilian casualties and inflicted far more destruction on Gaza than Israel has suffered while committing to take military control of Gaza – an operation, on a relative population basis, roughly equivalent to with a US decision to occupy half of Mexico overnight. Israel’s plan, according to Netanyahu, will be a “long and difficult” battle to “destroy Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities and bring the hostages home.”
As I said, Israel is not India, and there is no way to expect anyone to turn the other cheek – not in this neighborhood. But what is Netanyahu’s plan? The Israeli officials I speak to tell me they know two things for sure: Hamas will never rule Gaza again and Israel will not rule Gaza after Hamas. They suggest they will create an arrangement similar to that seen in parts of the West Bank today, with Palestinians in Gaza managing day-to-day life and Israeli military and Shin Bet security groups providing the power behind the scenes.
This is a half-baked plan. Who are these Palestinians who will be recruited to rule Gaza on behalf of Israel? What happens the morning after a Palestinian working for Israel in Gaza is found murdered in an alley with a note pinned to his chest: “Traitor” and signed “Hamas secret.”
Furthermore, who will pay for Israel’s control, health care and education for Gaza’s 2.2 million residents? Please raise your hand if you believe that the European Union, the Gulf Arab states, or the substantial progressive caucus in the US House of Representatives will fund an indefinite Israeli surveillance of Gaza — while Netanyahu and his group of Its Jewish ultranationalists are committed to annexing the West Bank without equal rights for the Palestinians. The cost of occupying Gaza could overburden the Israeli military and economy for years to come.
Above all, how will Israel manage such a complex operation when there is—and rightfully so—little confidence in Netanyahu? As recently as Saturday, he presented Israel’s military intelligence chiefs and the Shin Bet as responsible for the Hamas surprise attack, while disclaiming any responsibility. A day later, an outraged Israeli public forced the prime minister to retract his accusations against his wartime colleagues. But the damage was done.
Netanyahu has no opponents on his side. They have a group of people asking them to elaborate long-term options, while they themselves know that their prime minister is a person of such low character that he will blame them for everything that goes wrong and take credit for everything that goes right.
In short, dear reader, I understand why Israel feels it must destroy Hamas and thereby prevent others in the neighborhood from ever considering such a thing.
But the view from Washington is that Israel’s leadership does not have a viable plan to win or a leader who can deal with the pressures and complexities of this crisis. Israel must be aware that its American ally’s tolerance for massive civilian casualties in Gaza in a long-term military operation is not unlimited. In fact, we may soon be approaching the limit.
Israel should keep the door open to a humanitarian truce and prisoner swap that would also allow Israel to pause and consider exactly where it is going with its hasty military operation in Gaza — and the price it could pay in the long run .
That is why I mention the Indian example. Because the targeted use of force with limited, achievable goals can serve Israel’s long-term security and prosperity better than an open-ended war to eliminate Hamas. I hope Israel is evaluating the costs and benefits of both approaches.
A ceasefire could also allow Gazans to take stock of what Hamas’s attack on Israel – and Israel’s entirely predictable response – has done to their lives, families, homes and businesses. What exactly did Hamas think this war would achieve for the citizens of Gaza, thousands of whom were commuting to work in Israel every day or exporting agricultural products and other goods across the Gaza-Israel border just a few weeks ago?
Hamas has not been asked enough tough questions. I want to see the leaders of Hamas come out of their tunnels under the hospitals and look their people and the world media in the eye and tell everyone why they thought it was such a good idea to kill, maim and kidnap Israeli children and grandmothers and trigger this terrible impact on the children and grandmothers of their neighbors in Gaza — not to mention their own.
I’ve always believed that we can boil down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the early 1900s to one line: collision, timeout, collision, timeout, collision, timeout, collision, timeout, collision and timeout. The most significant difference between the sides is what each did during the timeouts. Israel built an impressive society and economy, albeit flawed, and Hamas took almost all of its resources and built attack tunnels. Please, Israel, don’t get lost in these tunnels.
- Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times international affairs columnist. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes and is the author of seven books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem, which won the US Book Award